the blesser, the blessing and the blessed
May the Lord bless and safeguard you
May the Lord shine His face on you and give you favour
May the Lord raise His face to you and grant you peace
This week’s reading includes the most famous blessing in the Jewish tradition. This is the blessing that was recited by the priests in the Temple, and which to this day is recited by the kohanim when they bless the rest of the congregation in Synagogue and by parents as they bless their children on Friday night.
In many ways this brief blessing – a mere fifteen words – is surprising. In particular, it suggests some unusual insights about the blesser, the blessing and the blessed.
The blesser: Judaism generally insists that there is no need for an intermediary between Man and God, so it is surprising that this blessing is made not directly by God but by the priests. Indeed one might imagine that giving one group within the community the role of blessing the others could lead to a sense of superiority and condescension. Perhaps it is for this reason, that this is the only act in Jewish life which is commanded to be performed b’ahava – with love. And indeed it seems appropriate that this blessing, with its call for peace, can only be made by one person to another. As the mystical treatise the Zohar observes; “Any priest who does not love the people or whom the people do not love, may not raise his hands to make the priestly blessing.”
The blessing: As understood by the commentators, the three-part blessing presents a progression: the first part focuses on our physical needs, the second on our spiritual wellbeing, and the third, on the ultimate blessing – peace. As the midrashic commentary Sifra notes: “Without peace there is nothing”. Although the blessing is to be given to the entire nation, it is striking that it is worded in the singular form. A Hassidic commentary (Itturei Torah) suggests that this is to convey the message that the most important blessing that Israel needs is unity.
And the blessed: After commanding Aaron and his sons, the priests, to make this blessing, God adds an afterthought: “Let them place my Name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them” (Bamidbar 6:27). As Rashi and other commentators note, the language is ambiguous. The word “them” – can refer to children of Israel who receive the blessing, or the priests who give it. If the former – it is a reminder that the source of true blessing is not man but the divine, if the latter – it suggests that in blessing others, we find our own true blessing.
In others’ words
“The Jewish tradition calls for a blessing on every new tree, every new fruit, on every new season. Let me conclude with the ancient Jewish blessing that has been with us in exile, and in Israel, for thousands of years:
“’Blessed are You, O Lord, who has preserved us, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this time’.”
Address by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the United States Congress, Washington,
26 July 1994
On a lighter note
On blessings – A joke which is equally unfair to all three major Jewish denominations:
A barmitzva boy wanted to know whether he should make a blessing over a new playstation he had been given as a present. He approached three rabbis and asked them:
“Should I make bracha over this playstation I got for my barmitzva?”
The orthodox rabbi responded: “What’s a playstation?”
The conservative rabbi answered: “What’s a bracha?”
And the reform rabbi asked: “What’s a barmitzva?”